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Opinionista

Time for real economic redress

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John Steenhuisen is the leader of the Democratic Alliance.

I am often asked what I would do to fix South Africa. The only way to fix South Africa is to get our economy growing so that we can create the millions of jobs we need to lift people out of poverty. 

The number of unemployed people in our country has grown from 3.6 million in 1994 to 10 million people today. Our most intractable social problems, including poverty and inequality, result largely from our abnormally high unemployment rate.

As a candidate for DA Leader, I recognise that we need to get better at connecting with South Africans who have been left out of the economy. We need to offer them an alternative economic policy that will profoundly improve their economic prospects.

I have a plan to radically grow the economy by providing policy certainty to attract investors, ditching BEE, privatising SOEs, reforming labour market regulation, making the tax system more efficient, to ensure that national funding is spent on the things that people need to help lift them out of poverty.

I am particularly concerned with child poverty. It pains me that 27% of children do not get the nutrients they need for their physical and mental development. We need to review our welfare system to ensure that not a single child gets left behind.

We need to start investing heavily in early childhood development, mental healthcare, and increasing the number of social workers in communities. The most recent available information indicates that we need at least 68,000 more social workers in South Africa. I am committed to ensuring that we bridge this gap.

My plan deals with the 700 or so state-owned enterprises in South Africa, including the big offenders like Eskom and SAA. We will assess all of them and sell off those that are a drain on our economy. 

In particular, I want to free citizens from Eskom by fighting for the government to sell off its coal-fired power stations and enable independent private producers to generate most of our electricity using renewable sources like hydro-power, wind and solar. This is how we will solve our electricity crisis, free the people of this country from Eskom, and become a world leader in the battle against climate change.

We are already doing it where we govern. By becoming independent from Eskom and embracing private green energy, the day will soon come when the lights remain on in the Western Cape while Eskom hurls the rest of South Africa into darkness. 

I am ready to make tough choices on our labour laws, for the sake of the 4.2 million young people who remain out of work, with no prospects of finding work. 

We will unleash growth, productivity and, ultimately, higher wages by making it easier to employ talented workers and dismiss underperforming ones. We will also protect individual workers against militant unions by enforcing the need for secret ballots on planned industrial action across all sectors of the economy.

I will focus on infrastructure-led growth – especially in those areas where infrastructure is collapsing. 

When it comes to transport, we will launch the biggest public-private investment partnership in South African history to expand, upgrade and integrate bus, rail and taxi networks across the country. 

When it comes to our water supply, we will fix collapsing infrastructure by ring-fencing municipal revenues collected from water so that this money can only be spent on improving and maintaining water infrastructure.

I recognise that we cannot talk about the economy without talking about inequality. And this is something that the DA has really struggled with. It is something that, under my leadership, I pledge to get right. 

I recognise and acknowledge that the injustices of the past were perpetrated on the basis of race. And I am firm in my commitment to redress this racial injustice.

However, as a liberal, I am also against all forms of racial labelling, classification and categorisation. 

This presents something of a dilemma: how do you redress racial wrongs on a non-racial basis?

This is not an easy question to answer, especially in the tense and polarised political climate we operate in.

My way out of this dilemma has generally been to accept that race-based policies are a necessary evil required to redress the wrongs of the past. 

But, as time has gone on, I have come to realise a few fundamental truths about race-based policies like BEE and the way they have been implemented.

First, and most self-evidently, BEE has served only to advance a narrow elite. While this was a controversial thing to say a decade ago, it is now commonly accepted – even by members of the governing party.

The facts speak for themselves. Under the ANC’s race-based BEE policies, black households have become 10% poorer over the past decade. The country’s poverty rate has also increased, with 30 million South Africans living on less than R991 per month. Out of the 30 million people living in poverty, 99.8% are black, coloured and Indian.

So, the question we must ask ourselves is this: why is it, nearly three decades since the end of apartheid, that the few continue to benefit at the expense of the many?

The answer lies in the mistaken belief that race-based policies work to benefit everybody in that racial group. Because the truth is, they don’t.

Race-based policies only benefit those with the social, financial and political capital to leverage the opportunities these policies present. 

This explains why Cyril Ramaphosa, for example, became a billionaire in a few short years, while the vast majority of black South Africans remain trapped in poverty.

I believe it is time for us to focus our empowerment efforts on poor and disadvantaged South Africans – 99% of whom are black. We need to stop re-empowering the same people; we need to unlock opportunities for poor black South Africans instead.

As part of the DA’s current policy review process, I will be working hard to ensure that our party adopts a new means-tested paradigm to ensure that empowerment programmes benefit the people who desperately need them. 

The time has come for a new economic paradigm. We must do what works for growth and jobs, and we must redress the wrongs of the past. These goals are not divergent; they are compatible. Most important of all, they are achievable. DM

Steenhuisen is a Member of Parliament and Candidate for the Leader of the Democratic Alliance.

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